Every Friday, the Brennan Center will be compiling the latest news concerning the corrosive nature of money in New York State politics—and the ongoing need for public financing and robust campaign finance reform. We’ll also be linking to dispatches from around the country highlighting the national scope of this crisis. This week’s links were contributed by Syed Zaidi.
For more stories on an ongoing basis, follow the Twitter hashtag #moNeYpolitics and #fairelex.
Public Matching Funds in NYC Amplify Voices of Small Donors
New York City’s public financing program provides matching funds for candidates who can raise a certain number of small-dollar contributions from constituents in their district. Data from the latest disclosure filings show the effectiveness of the program during this election cycle. Thus far in 2013, candidates have collected more than $8.7 million from small donors – those contributing less than $250. This accounts for a 51 percent increase in small donations compared to the last election cycle in 2009. Donors giving less than $250 constituted 74 percent of all contributors in this year’s elections. Much of the credit for the extensive participation of small donors can be attributed to the 6-to-1 match New York City provides for the first $175 donated.
Common Cause/NY Examines Fracking Contributions
A new analysis by Common Cause/NY illustrates that millions of dollars have flowed from fracking interests in New York to state and local campaigns. The investigation reveals that from January, 2007, to March, 2013, these interests – totaling 183 entities –contributed over $14 million to state and local campaigns. The money seems to follow the party in power. In the Senate, the ruling coalition of Republican and Independent Democratic Conference candidates received $2.22 million, while Senate Democratic candidates received $496,063. Assembly Democratic candidates got $784,942, compared to $439,617 for Assembly Republican candidates. The Fair Elections for New York coalition has called on Gov. Cuomo’s Commission to Investigate Public Corruption to subpoena information related to contributions in order to explore the transactions involved.
NYC Campaign Finance Board Releases New Database
The New York City Campaign Finance Board (CFB) has released new versions of its searchable campaign finance database as well as summaries of campaign expenditures and contributions. New rules adopted by the Campaign Finance Board require independent spenders to disclose expenditures above $100 and certain contributions above $1,000 to the CFB. The searchable database allows users to search through individual contributions, campaign expenditures and independent expenditures via filters such as recipient, contributor and transaction type. In addition, a summary page enables users to access an overview of campaign spending, independent expenditures, and public funds received for all citywide, borough president, and city council races. Amy Loprest, executive director of the CFB, stated that “With the elections just around the corner, we hope these improved online disclosure tolls will help make more New Yorkers into better informed voters.”
New Poll Demonstrates that Vast Majority of Business Leaders Support Comprehensive Campaign Finance Reform
According to a survey conducted by polling firms Hart Research and American Viewpoint on behalf of the Committee for Economic Development, 87 percent of business leaders say that our campaign finance laws need a complete overhaul. The poll of 302 business executives across a diverse set of industries also found bipartisan support for a number of reform initiatives. Ninety-five percent of business leaders that consider themselves Democrats favor disclosure of all individual, corporate and labor contributions to political campaigns, as do 88 percent of Republican business leaders. Steve Odland, president and CEO of the Committee for Economic Development and a former CEO of Office Depot Inc., explains that “There’s an impression that there is money being used to buy politicians, and that therefore they are not beholden to the electorate but to donors.” Eighty percent of the business leaders who responded support reducing aggregate contribution limits: restricting the total amount an individual can contribute to all candidates, political action committees, and party committees.
Banks Meet With Regulators to Water Down Wall Street Reform
Three years after the passage of Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, an examination by USA Today reveals that 32.2 percent, or 128, of the 398 rules required by the act have yet to be proposed. Analysis by the Sunlight Foundation offers a possible reason. Big banks and financial institutions have held 2,118 meetings with federal regulators – that is 14 times more than consumer-oriented and pro-reform groups. Sunlight’s analysis is based on the logs of the Commodities Futures Trading Commission (CFTC), the Department of the Treasury and the Federal Reserve Board, accessible through the Dodd-Frank Meetings Tracker. Financial sector corporations and trade groups were present at 90 percent of meetings at the Federal Reserve Board, 82.7 percent of the meetings at Treasury, and 74.8 percent of the meetings at the CFTC. Compare that to the attendance of pro-reform groups: 3.3 percent at the Fed, 13.7 percent at Treasury, and 4.4 percent at CFTC. CFTC Commissioner Bart Chilton sums up the problem well: “Lobbying, litigation and lawmakers who have tried to defund and defang Dodd-Frank have all brought rule-writing to a crawl. Regulators themselves have become overly concerned about finalizing rules. Over-analysis paralysis, fears of litigation risks, and the lack of people-power have all contributed to the slowdown."
Brennan Center Submits Brief for McCutcheon v. FEC
This week, the Brennan Center for Justice submitted an amicus curiae brief to the Supreme Court in support of the FEC in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission. Federal law restricts the amount of money a candidate can receive per donor, as well as the total amount that any one person can donate to all candidates, political parties and committees combined in an election cycle. Individuals are restricted to contributing $5,200 to a federal candidate per election cycle. Furthermore, under the current aggregate limit, one person cannot donate more than $123,200 combined to all federal candidates, parties and political committees per cycle. Eliminating aggregate limits would essentially allow donors to circumvent the $5,200 base contribution limit because large donations to political parties and other committees would become easily transferable to specific political candidates. The Brennan Center brief argues that the Court should examine aggregate contribution limits in light of the fundamental interest in maintaining integrity and public confidence in our elected institutions.
Tumblr Blog Explores the Founding Fathers’ Views on Corruption
It is unclear how the founding fathers would feel about Tumblr. However, recent research does attempt to explain how they would feel about the avalanche of money in politics. A Tumblr blog by Harvard Law professor Lawrence Lessig examines the writings of the founding fathers to contextually evaluate how they used the term “corruption.” In Citizens United v. FEC, the Supreme Court ruled that corporations and unions can spend money independently without limits because independent expenditures cannot corrupt candidates. As the Supreme Court considers McCutcheon v. FEC, a case that challenges the aggregate limit on each person’s contributions over a two-year election cycle, it will determine whether restricting the total amount one person can contribute to political candidates poses a risk of corruption. In recent decisions, the Supreme Court has adopted a very narrow view of corruption, limited to individual quid pro quo exchanges where campaign contributions are traded for policy outcomes. Professor Lessig’s examination of corruption shows that the founders understood it to include institutional in addition to individual corruption. Institutional corruption occurs when elected bodies become dependent on special interests or on public or private money – anything other than voters. Out of the 325 instances that the term “corruption” is encountered in the founding documents, 57 percent refer to an institution, not the individual. Furthermore, out of the instances where the founders were discussing “improper dependence” as a kind of corruption, they were more likely to be referring to institutions (67 percent) than individuals (33 percent). And what about the “individual quid pro quo” corruption that the Supreme Court has characterized as the only legitimate target of campaign finance regulation? A mere 1.5 percent of the founding documents use “corruption” in such a context.
Maine Voters Organize to Protect State Clean Elections Program
Citizens in Maine are working to repair a popular campaign finance reform program, after $1.2 million was cut from the state’s Clean Elections system. The public financing program awards funds to state candidates if they can raise a qualifying number of $5-$100 contributions from registered voters in their district. Now organizers of Maine Citizens for Clean Elections are knocking on doors across the state to gather signatures for an initiative petition that would increase public funding disbursements for house, senate and gubernatorial races. Taxpayer funding would be replaced by a 15 percent surcharge on all civil and criminal fines and penalties ordered by Maine courts. The initiative would also prohibit registered candidates from participating in political action committees and bar ballot question committees from spending money on candidate campaigns. Historically, the public funding program has been very popular. A Portland Press Herald editorial called it “a success on most counts” and the last election saw 80 percent of legislators participating.